Jane tells the spectral story of the life and death of Maggie Nelson’s aunt Jane, who was murdered in 1969 while a first-year law student at the University of Michigan. Though officially unsolved, Jane’s murder was apparently the third in a series of seven brutal rape-murders in the area. Nelson was born a few years after Jane’s death, and the narrative is suffused with the long shadow her murder cast over both the family and her psyche.
Jane explores the nature of this haunting incident via a collage of poetry, prose, and documentary sources, including newspapers, related “true crime” books, and fragments from Jane’s own diaries written. Each piece in Jane has its own form that serves as an important fissure, disrupting the tabloid, “page-turner” quality of the story, and eventually returning the reader to deeper questions about girlhood, empathy, identification, and the essentially unknowable aspects of another’s life and death. Part elegy, part memoir, detective story, part meditation on violence, and part conversation between the living and the dead, Jane’s powerful and disturbing subject matter, combined with its innovations in genre, expands the notion of what poetry can do — what kind of stories it can tell, and how it can tell them.
Not only is this a brilliant and deeply felt book, it is also a fascinating and necessary coda to American culture’s obsession with serial killers.